On inhabiting Mrs Thatcher’s Britain
No Prime Minister managed to divide the British nation as terrifyingly neatly as did the late Margaret Thatcher.
On a sunny day in 1987, I encountered one John Davies – an honourable man with a hopeless task – forlornly distributing leaflets outside East Finchley tube station. A jolly older lady shook her head and paused to offer some back-handed support. “You’ll never get her out, young fellow. But good on you for trying,” she said.
Mr Davies was the Labour Party candidate for the parliamentary constituency of Finchley. Others challenging for the seat included Lord Buckethead of the Gremloid Party, M Jane St Vincent of the Gold Party and one Margaret Hilda Thatcher of the Conservative Party. Goats tethered to lure tigers in subtropical forests had less chance of survival than poor Mr Davies. (Though it is worth noting that, 10 years later, some time after Mrs Thatcher’s eventual defenestration, Labour managed to take Finchley.)
There were few better places than that north London suburb to observe the divisive effect of Mrs Thatcher’s character and politics on UK society. A disconnected campaigner for the Labour Party – the sort that felt Michael Foot should never have quit – I shared a house (and, it seemed, an entire street) with people who couldn’t quite believe the nation that once elected Clement Atlee had fallen for this extravagantly coiffed Visigoth. The People’s Republic of East Finchley – a little less grand than areas to the west and north – swelled with citizens who valued kindness over strength and warmth over determination.
The day after the election, The Guardian, its front page not quite bordered in black, carried a cartoon that summed up one’s feelings very economically. A pair of quintessential consumers of that newspaper – sandals and woolly jumpers – stare forlornly out the window. “We must live very sheltered lives,” the chap says. “We don’t know anybody who voted for her.”
One could, without actually moving onto Greenham Common, quite easily live just that sort of cosseted life. I can say, with all sincerity, that, living through two elections in London, I remember only one friend or workmate admitting to casting a vote for the Conservatives. He seemed lonely in our company. But much of the nation was with him. Those former workers in the industrial sector whose communities were annihilated certainly thought differently. Those who actually did believe in “society” didn’t get on board. Those who believed that railways and utilities belonged to the people were not going to cast their vote for Thatcher any time soon.
All of which is a roundabout way of advising Mrs Thatcher’s former enemies to avoid too much backsliding when the press call round for assessments of her legacy. It disrespects the dead to cosmetically soften their (let’s be this evasive, anyway) imperfections and dance cautiously round their (as we see it) outrages. Tell the truth as you see it or remain silent.